David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, (NY: Grove Atlantic Press, 2020)
In Wilmington’s Lie readers get a historical account of race relations and the overthrow of Democracy by white supremacists in 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina. Zucchino has a brief prologue introducing the violent day of November 10, 1898 and a brief epilogue at the end of a 352 page narrative divided into three chronological parts. Part I has 62 pages in eight chapters that narrate Wilmington from the end of the Civil War to March 1898. Part II has 120 pages and 17 chapters that narrates the period from March 1898, until election day November 8, 1898. Part III has 163 pages in 12 chapters that returns to the post-election day of November 10, 1898, and onward into a narrative account of the violent aftermath of election day and the end of voting for black people in the south.
Part I gives a view of Wilmington life when former slaves had jobs and some freedom, liberty and civil rights as a legacy of reconstruction. Readers meet some of the white and black people that will be part of the narrative in Part II and III. These are especially Alfred Moore Waddell, known as Colonel Waddell, a white supremacist, Josephus Daniels, a white supremacist newspaper owner-publisher and later a cabinet member for President Woodrow Wilson, and Alexander Lightfoot Manly, a black journalist.
Part II moves along covering key events in the campaign to overthrow democracy and end black voting in Wilmington. Readers learn the depression of 1893 left rural whites so impoverished they voted with the freed slaves and progressive whites to elect Republican candidates and defeat the white Supremacist democratic party in some local and state offices like Wilmington. Blacks outnumber whites in Wilmington: 11,324 black, 8,731 white.
To the white supremacist’s black participation was “negro domination” that could not be tolerated. These Part II chapters gives dates and details of events in the campaign to suppress black voting in the months leading up to the November 8, 1898 election. It gives details of organizing white racist men into a para-military force of Red Shirts.
On August 18, 1898 multiple North Carolina newspapers published remarks of Rebecca Latimer Felton who demanded “The black fiend who lays unholy and lustful hands on a white woman in the state of Georgia shall surely die!” She wanted black man seen with a white women to be lynched. Alexander Manly published a reply to Felton in his newspaper the Daily Record. His reply included “Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman, than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman.” Manly’s reply turned into an excuse to rally white supremacists.
On October 24, 1898 Colonel Waddell spoke at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, N.C. where he claimed whites endured “intolerable conditions” imposed on whites by the “ragged rabble of negroes.” . . . “We are resolved to change them, if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses.” These two episodes illustrate a small part of the campaign of various white men and their varied plots to promote fear through speeches and newspaper stories that included false claims that blacks were planning a violent uprising with intention to kill whites.
Zucchino includes efforts by blacks and some white Republicans to contact President McKinley and North Carolina governor Daniel Russell to intervene, but to no avail. The white supremacy campaign succeeded. Few blacks were able to vote and the white supremacist Democrats were swept into office.
Part II ends with the November 8 election and Part III narrates the violent aftermath. Prevailing in the elections did not remove all blacks from elected office or appointed jobs, or put them in their place. Stealing the election without outside opposition only emboldened the white supremacists to further violence against blacks. Beginning November 10, a white mob of Red Shirts encouraged by Colonel Waddell burned the Manly newspaper offices. From that Red Shirts invaded black neighborhoods shooting and killing black men hopelessly outgunned. Zucchino takes three chapters and 39 pages narrating the day’s violence and slaughter of blacks.
After the killing stopped armed white supremacist groups patrolled the streets while people like Colonel Waddell removed the elected government, some white and some black, and targeted other blacks and whites to banish from Wilmington under threat of death. The Red Shirts roamed about and much of the terrified black community fled to the surrounding forests and swamps. Zucchino narrates the stories of these events and the narrow escape of Manly and others.
The white ministers and others celebrated the return of white supremacist rule. Five days after the killings Josephus Daniels staged a celebration attended by thousands he titled a “Victory, White Supremacy and Good Government Jubilee” at Raleigh. Visitors arrived on reduced fare trains greeted with flaming tar barrels and bonfires. Fireworks lit up darkening skies on a crisp autumn evening. “Every man had a torchlight which gleamed and blinked like the eye of some mighty cyclops,” Daniels newspaper reported.
Zucchino goes on to explain the timid and failed effort of President McKinley and his administration and Governor Daniel Russell to make any response to the killings and end of Democracy and to explain the long term method to end black voting for seventy years. The U.S. Constitution demands the federal government guarantee a Republican form of government in the states. Instead it would be Jim Crow, the poll tax and the literacy test where the white supremacists devised a crude method to have illiterate whites vote by allowing a literacy test exception for those who had parents or grandparents that voted before 1867.
Zucchino writes a thirty-three page epilogue that allows comparing the present attitudes and voter ID laws in the context of the past, and recounts events from a hundred anniversary observance in 1998. In 2000 the North Carolina legislature sponsored a state commission to investigate the cause and effect of the 1898 coup that is available on the Internet. The report concluded the coup was a documented conspiracy. There was also student protest in 2015 at the University of North Carolina objecting to buildings named after white supremacists. All of the principal figures are dead by 2020 but Zucchino ended the book reviewing some post-coup d'état history and interviewing some remaining family members, especially of Josephus Daniels and Alex Manly, in an apparent search for regret, but regret implies change of heart which never comes easily.
The Book Wilmington’s Lie starts with a good title. It happens often that people of influence with the opportunity to do the right thing, who then choose the wrong thing, want to cover it up with excuses and delete it from history as happened with Wilmington. It took a hundred years before an accounting and Wilmington’s Lie should be considered a thorough and orderly accounting of it, although not the only one, it is the latest one.
The book reads easily in well organized short chapters that maintain a readable narrative style. The writing avoids academic excess. Chapter titles often identify an event or subject in the chapter to come. Zucchino avoids moralizing and leaves the reader to judge the evidence, which he documents carefully. The book includes a lengthy bibliography.
As the story moves along I would say the narrative has embedded in it the chronology of steps needed for a coup d'état. A coup d'état requires one or a few completely unscrupulous authoritarian leaders-demagogues to unify a group by embellishing their grievances, perverting the facts, and encouraging their hatred toward a definable target. Targets are usually racial minorities although it could be elite’s, religious groups, immigrants and others. Democracy needs persuasion and a majority, but a coup d’etat needs the unifying power of hatred and it needs violence and assassination to generate fear in the majority. A coup d’etat brings minority rule where fear subdues the majority into passive acceptance. Just talking and speeches do not succeed in that the victims can not be easily deceived with the lies and misconduct going on around them. Patience will be necessary because it takes time to convince authoritarian followers they can murder their hated targets without consequence, and for the majority to convince themselves to do nothing about it. It is worth noting that Wilmington and the atrocities there preceded Adolf Hitler and deserve comparison to Trump. The book received recognition with a Pulitzer Prize, which it deserved, but even so it is a sobering account for a country claiming to be a democracy.